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Language quirks and idiosyncrasies

Language quirks and idiosyncrasies

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Every language has its quirks, but for me English produces some of the most entertaining and, from a translator’s point of view, baffling idioms of all.

Consider what a ‘couch potato’ could possibly sound like to someone hearing the expression for the first time. Their thought process might go along the lines of a vegetable that you grow in your living room, or perhaps a potato big enough to be used as a chair. You would have to take quite a large leap of imagination to end up with a lazy slob who sits around watching TV all day, which makes you wonder whom the person who first coined the phrase was thinking of.

Likewise, when Shakespeare decided that Mark Antony would open his famous speech (in the play Julius Caesar) with the words, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’, little did he know the trouble it would cause translators for centuries afterwards. I suppose there is a logic and poetry to the phrase, and far be it from me to question The Bard’s influence on the language, but really? How gruesome a suggestion for the unprepared reader of a foreign language to try and understand.

Another one that is a bit random for non-native English speakers is the idea of having ‘butterflies in your stomach’. Hmmm, tasty. Is this clearly a description of a feeling? Why else would you have butterflies inside you? They are certainly not served in any restaurant that I know.

This is exactly why getting to grips with translation is so important. It is only to a native speaker, who has lived, breathed and soaked up a language (with its oddities and idiosyncrasies) all of their life, that these phrases are clear. How is someone who is learning a language or trying to translate it supposed to know whether something is literal or metaphorical? It is not beyond the realms of imagination to believe that eating butterflies is some sort of delicacy in some cultures. In fact, it might be reasonable to think that doing so gives the eater courage, so the exact opposite of the intended meaning could easily be assumed.

And logic or common sense does not always come into it either. Imagine being shown something during a cookery show that is really easy, perhaps the basics of applying icing as decoration, and the presenter says, ‘It’s a piece of cake.’ What are you supposed to think?

Going back to having butterflies in your stomach, apparently this is a fairly recently introduced saying. The first reference to butterflies describing feelings of anxiety was recorded in 1908, and it was not until the 1940s that the current use of the phrase became commonplace. We tend to think of idioms like these as relics of antiquity, with a romantic origin story waiting to be discovered, but in truth they are simply things that are relevant to the times. I particularly like the most modern variation on this idea, because it is an encouragement to overcome the anxiety.

Let me explain. The thought is that nerves are natural, and the fact that we get nervous (the proverbial fluttery feeling in our stomach) means that we are alive. It is part of the way that we are made and a feature of our ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism, making us more alert and ready to react. The key is to be aware that fear and nerves are simply a chemical reaction rather than something real, and we can control them. So with the thought of controlling your nerves in mind, someone (the phrase is generally attributed to former footballer Steve Bull) came up with a modern take on the same phrase: ‘Nerves and butterflies are fine – they’re a physical sign that you’re mentally ready and eager. The trick is to get the butterflies to fly in formation.’

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